Alex Dunn started writing songs on the 58-foot, five-man fishing boats anchored off the coast of southeastern Alaska where he spent fifteen summers as a commercial fisherman. It was a way to pass the time during the long stints at sea.
“I started writing my own songs because I was alone and playing music by myself on the boat,” Dunn says. “That’s how a lot of them started forming.”
The boats, even when they were idle, kept a motor running for the chillers so the salmon in the hold wouldn’t spoil. Dunn recalls that the motor on his first boat hummed at F sharp, so he had to play around that pitch. The motor pitch varied from boat to boat, and he would respond accordingly.
“I had to not be out of key with the engine on or it would sound like garbage,” he says.
On one boat, he would hammer out duets with another fisherman who played the mandolin, and sometimes he would play in the crow's nest atop the mast. Had he not been out in the ocean with only an acoustic guitar, he says, he would probably have written a different kind of music than the Americana-leaning material on his two albums.
“One of my signature deals getting hired on the boat was that I play guitar and write songs,” he notes.
He released his first record, Scattered Poems, in 2018, and his music has taken a more electric and roots-based direction when compared with his acoustic and folk-rock origins. His current band, the Dunn Deal, has been instrumental in that shift.
“Southern Star,” the title track from Dunn’s upcoming second album, was released Friday, December 3; both its sound and its lyrics illustrate the influence of being at sea.
“It’s definitely an ocean song,” Dunn says. “It’s basically about living on a specific boat, the first boat I worked on, which sunk a few years ago in a tragic accident on the way back [to shore]. No one died, thankfully, but that boat is now resting at the bottom of the ocean.”
Dunn, who lives in Seattle, grew up in Fort Collins and Wyoming. His time in both states rings out in his music just as strongly as his time at sea.
“They are certainly different places, drastically,” he says. “But I just went back home and went elk hunting with my dad right on the border of Colorado and Wyoming. Just looking out across these peaks out into the nothingness is so similar to the ocean. It’s so vast, and there are no people.”
Dunn attended art school in Tacoma, Washington, where he studied sculpture and played bass in numerous bands before taking a job as a seasonal fisherman. He held that gig for fifteen years, but gave it up a few years back because being gone four months at a time was too disruptive to his creative life, even if it helped fuel it.
“It provided for this, all the fodder,” he says.
“I wasn’t shooting for a country record,” he continues. “I’m not a country artist, I’m not a cowboy, but there are those influences. I wanted to make an album that would get me away from people saying, ‘Oh you’re a bluegrass player.' I’m like, ‘No, I don’t play bluegrass. I don’t pick. I write poems and strum.’”
The dreamy and ethereal opening track, “Finally,” sets the twangy, but not overtly so, sound for the seven songs that follow. Dunn creates a sonic landscape that borders on melancholy with songs like “Southern Star” and “Linden Street.” Meanwhile, “Ain’t Quite Sure” and a cover of Ted Hawkins's “Sorry You're Sick” punch into country-rock territory, with overdriven guitars and rumbling drums that beg for performance in a rural honky-tonk.
The song “Me and the Lady” is reminiscent of ’90s alt-rock band Cracker's country tunes, but has a personal backstory. Dunn says his father, who is a medical doctor, wrote the lyrics to that song as a poem to his mother while he was away from home.
“My father was going to medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, and he wasn’t home for Mother’s Day,” he says. “I thought that was pretty cool. It was like a genealogical intermedium between three generations. I wish I could write lyrics like my dad wrote. They're pretty good. He was on a Kerouac vibe.”
Dunn’s lyrics can be pensive and almost tear-inducing at times. “Southern Star” showcases Dunn’s disarming vocals, which float above finger-picked guitar and blunted backing vocals and instrumentals that build and recede softly like the swells of a languid sea. The record, however, is not a somber affair, by any means, and the tracks all possess a mild psychedelic undertone that binds them together.
Dunn has also released a “Southern Star” music video by Los Angeles artist Elena Stonaker, whose nature-themed, stop-motion cutout animations provide the perfect visual accompaniment to the lugubrious sound.
“The southern star was always just a symbol to me, kind of theoretical,” he says. “All my dreams and my life are south of here. I’m up here in Alaska putting my nose to the grindstone and working for three months so I can head back south and actualize my dreams.”
Southern Star is available on Denver-based Color Red Music. A vinyl version of the album is available for pre-order at alexdunnmusic.com.